This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, “JOY Full Horses”. If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.
At their best Horse Expos should be events that expand in positive ways our understanding of horse training. Sadly that isn’t always what is presented. At one Expo I found myself standing outside a demo ring where a trainer was cracking a bull whip over a horse’s head. She first warned the audience to cover their ears because the crack was going to be loud.
The horse couldn’t cover his ears, and he couldn’t get away. Over and over again she cracked the whip around his body. Each time you could see his belly tighten. You know the expression “tied up in knots”. That’s how this horse was clearly feeling. No matter what he did he couldn’t get away from that fearful crack.
This isn’t training. This is learned helplessness.
We know about learned helplessness from some terrible laboratory experiments that were done with dogs in the 1960s. The dogs were restrained in harnesses and given electric shocks through electrodes attached to their foot pads.
For the experiment two dogs were yoked together. The first dog could stop the shocks by pressing a lever which also stopped the shocks the second dog was receiving. The second dog could not stop the shocks through it’s own actions.
In the second half of the experiment the dogs were placed in a room with a barrier down the center. The floor they were on had electric wires running through it. Again the dogs were shocked. The dogs that had learned that they could control the shocks jumped over the divider and escaped. The dogs that had not been able to control the shocks made no attempt to jump out. Nothing was restraining them. They could have jumped across the partition to the safety of the other side, but instead they just curled up in a ball and took the shocks. Learned helplessness. They didn’t believe any more that they could escape from the pain.*
Is this what we want for our horses? Do we want them to give up and simply endure whatever we do to them in the name of training? It’s important to remember that this trainer with the bull whip had a benign intent. This horse was pushy and tended to spook. The trainer wanted to be sure the horse was safe for the owner to be around.
Safety does always come first – but that has to mean for BOTH the horse and the handler. The trainer continued to crack the bull whip around this horse. I don’t know how long it continued. I left to find the show management to lodge a complaint.
* Failure to Escape Traumatic Shock, Martin Seligman, Steven Maier Journal of Experimental Psychology Vol. 74, No. 1 May 1967
Standing Up For Our Horses
I know if I push against you, you will push back against me. And I know that we will not all make the same training choices. There are many in the clicker training community who want to avoid all use of pressure, including any use of leads. But pressure and release of pressure is our riding language, so I’ve made it part of clicker training. I want the horses to learn in a positive, constructive way how to use the information that pressure provides. I want it to mean not “do it or else”, but “follow the hints the pressure is offering, and you’ll get to your reinforcer faster.” How we teach these lessons changes how pressure is perceived.
We all make different choices. We all draw our lines at different points. People who are exploring force-based training methods want good things for their horses. They see that the end results can look very light. They see that horses can be responsive. They are afraid of the dangerous behaviors they are dealing with, and they are looking for solutions that work.
I don’t want to push against these good intentions, or the exploration that each of us goes through as we sort out how we want to train. But at some point we all need to remember that it is more than okay, it is our responsibility to stand up for our horses. We are their voice. When we see methods that cross the lines of safe training, we need to be able to move past the words the trainers are using and see what is really going on.
I have watched and learned good things from force-based trainers. How am I defining force-based training? This is training that is backed up with a do-it-or-else threat of escalating pressure. The trainer applies light pressure. If the horse complies, the pressure is released, and all is well. If the horse fails to respond, the pressure increases until the horse gives a correct response. The more the horse resists, the greater the pressure becomes.
A skilled trainer using these methods can look unbelievably light. Raise an eyebrow and the horse backs up twenty feet. The final result is very impressive and compelling. How magical. Of course we want that. But it is like a magician’s illusion, all built out of slight of hand. We need to remember that the reason the horse backs up for that raised eyebrow is because he knows that if he doesn’t, the subtle directive will turn into the sharp crack of a whip. The threat is always there even if the audience fails to see it.
What Good Trainers Have In Common
I make this sound unbelievably harsh, but good force-based trainers can create good results and end up with eager, happy horses. Good trainers no matter what methods they use share many of the same characteristics.
Good trainers are splitters. They break their lessons down into many small steps. If you are a force-based trainer and you are heading straight for the towering brick wall, you will end up in a fight. But if you tear that wall down and build it up brick by brick, layer by layer – in other words if you are a good teacher – then the amount of do-it-or-else pressure you will be adding at any one step will be small. You will be building confidence in your learner that he can succeed. You’ll create a learning environment in which he knows he’ll be able to figure out the answer. And just as important, he’ll be confident in his physical ability to perform.
If your small steps are accompanied by good timing, your requests will be clear and fair. You will truly be working for the good of the horse. Safety will be built into your training, and you will be a trainer I can watch and learn from.
It is important to make these distinctions and not put all the eggs into the same basket. It’s only the rotten eggs that need to be left out.
Speaking Out For Our Horses
When we see training that violates safety, we need to speak out. It can be hard. Punishers are good at punishing. And they will all tell you it is for the good of the horse.
But good trainers know there is always another way to train everything. If I am working with someone who isn’t comfortable with one of the choices I’m making for their horse, I’ll change the lesson plan. There is ALWAYS another way to teach what we are after.
If you are working with a trainer who tells you that lassoing the horse’s hind leg to get him over his fear of shots is the way to go, it’s okay for you to say you aren’t comfortable with that method. It isn’t safe for your horse and to please find a different way. A good trainer won’t belittle you or make you feel bad. A good trainer will listen to your concerns for your horse’s welfare. A good trainer will respect you more for standing up for your horse. And a good trainer will find another way. There is ALWAYS another way.
That wasn’t what I expected to write when I began the section on small wins. Let me bring it back around to a wonderfully positive note and that’s to the brilliant use of keystone behaviors and small wins that you see in tagteaching. That’s the subject of the next chapter.
Coming Next: We’re still in the section on Non-verbal Cues. Up next is: TagTeaching – You Can’t Train My Child Like a Dog!
Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.
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Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training. If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: